Forgive me if this week’s post is even more rambling and incoherent than usual. I just completed a very early morning transcontinental flight and I’m so jetlagged, I’m starting to talk like Sean Penn in I Am Sam. Then again, being delirious with jetlag might be the perfect mindset for exploring the bizarre pop music footnote that is Tiny Tim.
Born Herbert Khaury in 1932, Tiny Tim became, very briefly, the most celebrated oddball in all of music, thanks to some memorable appearances on the comedy/variety show Laugh-In in 1968. With his gawky stage presence, comically miniscule ukulele (contrary to his stage name, he was rather a hulking fellow), and warbling falsetto, Tiny was an unlikely star—but something about his guileless interpretations of old American songbook warhorses like “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” and his signature tune, “Tip-Toe Thru the Tulips,” struck a chord with middle America. He became a regular fixture not only on Laugh-In but also The Tonight Show, where Johnny Carson teased out enough personal details (five showers a day, wore ladies’ cosmetics, openly had a thing for pretty underage girls, which he referred to as “classics”) to finally convince viewers that he was not some elaborate put-on, but a genuine weirdo.
On his first Laugh-In appearance, Tiny was introduced by the show’s droll, chain-smoking hosts, Rowan and Martin, as both an undiscovered diamond in the rough and “the toast of Greenwich Village.” Both things were true, in a way. After years of taking any gig he could in every New York dive under a variety of stage names (including Darry Dover, Emmett Swink, Judas K. Foxglove and “Larry Love, The Human Canary,” when he briefly appeared as part of a freak show), Tim finally hit the big time when he was “discovered” at a hip nightclub called The Scene. By the time he made his first Laugh-In appearance, he had already released his first album, God Bless Tiny Tim, on Frank Sinatra’s Reprise Records label. It contained his signature “Tip-Toe Thru the Tulips,” but the album’s most memorable moment is probably a cover of “I Got You, Babe,” on which Tiny sings both Sonny and Cher’s parts in a performance that’s simultaneously virtuosic and ridiculous.
Like all true outsiders, Tiny Tim was not destined for lasting stardom. He and his music were just too “far out” for the mainstream squares and too old-fashioned and fuddy-duddy for the hippie rock ‘n’ roll types. His jump-the-shark moment came in December of 1969, when he married his 17-year-old sweetheart, Victoria Mae Budinger, aka “Miss Vicki,” on an episode of The Tonight Show that is reputed to be the second most-watched TV program of the ’60s (21.4 million viewers) after the moon landing. Apart from the bride’s age, the ceremony is actually kinda boring by today’s Springer/Kardashian standards, but there was still a certain freak-show aspect to the whole thing that eclipsed Tiny’s music—especially when the couple revealed that they planned to sleep in separate rooms and even dine apart because of the groom’s phobia of eating in the presence of others.
By the late ’70s, Tiny Tim was divorced (though he later remarried, twice), dropped from his label, and reduced to releasing novelty tunes like “Tip-Toe to the Gas Pumps.” In the ’80s and ’90s, he occasionally collaborated with younger artists who admired his work, like (no, really) Camper Van Beethoven—but for the most part, he was remembered (dimly) as a tulip-sniffing, one-hit wonder. In 1996, shortly after the release of his final studio album, Girl (recorded with the aptly named Texas polka-rockers Brave Combo), he suffered a massive heart attack during a performance in Minneapolis and died that same day. He was 64.
Even though it’s probably true that most Laugh-In and Tonight Show viewers were laughing at, not with, Tiny Tim, it would be unfair to dismiss him as the Rebecca Black of his era. There was nothing manufactured or phony about him. His talents were outlandish, but they were genuine; take this amazing, Tom Jones-like version of “Stayin’ Alive,” which starts out a little shaky but eventually turns into a tour de force of vocal elasticity. Not many humans have ever been able to sing in a hairy-chested baritone and a choir-boy falsetto in the same breath. At least not with this much chutzpah.
I could go on defending Tiny Tim’s legacy, but I know I’m preaching to the choir; several readers over the years have suggested we add him to the Weird List, and since he would have turned 80 this week, we figured this was a good time to do it. We’ll leave you with perhaps his most famous performance. If you’ve never seen it before, you’re in for a treat.
- Tiny Tim Memorial Site
- Tiny Tim “official” website (hosted by this company, which apparently now owns the rights to his likeness and some of his music)
- Interview with Tiny Tim expert Justin Martell (much of this post was cribbed from this interview, as well as from Irwin Chusid’s Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music)